There’s a good reason presidents usually don’t swoop in to the scene of a local catastrophe like the one that has emerged in Ferguson, Mo., since a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, a little over a week ago. It’s because the presence of the commander in chief would greatly complicate the logistical and security difficulties police are already struggling to confront.
But in Ferguson, it’s now become clear that those security problems are being exacerbated by the police. They have been firing tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters for days. They further inflamed the situation by releasing, against the wishes of federal investigators, a videotape allegedly showing Brown robbing a convenience store (the tape provided no basis for killing Brown). The menacing defensiveness with which the police have conducted themselves—arresting reporters and refusing to release basic information—has badly undermined the public’s faith. In general, they’ve done such a poor job of deescalating the tension and bringing about a return to order that Missouri’s governor, after inexplicably keeping his distance from the shooting for days, has now concluded local law enforcement can’t do the job itself and has called in the National Guard.
In Ferguson, the logic of why a president should keep his distance has now flipped. That’s because the main force driving the protests is no longer Brown’s death but widespread anger at the acute lack of leadership displayed by almost every local and state official with responsibility for addressing it. This leadership crisis extends beyond crowd control and security to the investigation into why Brown was killed and whether anyone will held responsible for it. It’s no accident that Brown’s family felt the need to hire its own pathologist to conduct an autopsy.
It’s also no accident that the FBI and Justice Department are running their own investigations of what happened. Clearly, they lack confidence that local law enforcement officials will do a capable and honest job. But things are so far gone in Ferguson that only Obama himself can reassure the broader public and instill confidence that Brown’s case will be handled as it should be. All the more so, given his impressive track record of speaking to the country about race. Obama did the right thing by cutting short his summer vacation. But he should go to Ferguson before returning to Washington.